George Franklyn Yerex was born in Wellington on 30 January 1893. His parents, Clara Pinny and her husband, George Manley Yerex, a Canadian-born importer, raised four boys and two girls in a large home on the hills above Lower Hutt. George attended Wellington College briefly, before moving with his family to a farm near Tauranga in 1906. He completed his schooling there and passed the matriculation examination.
He early developed an interest in soldiering and enlisted in the Territorial Force in 1910 when he was 17. The following year he was appointed a second lieutenant in the 4th (Waikato) Mounted Rifles, and he was promoted to lieutenant six months before the outbreak of the First World War. He enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1915 and served in Egypt and Palestine, initially as second in command of the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps, and then as officer commanding the 16th Company of the Imperial Camel Corps. Promoted to captain in 1917, he returned to New Zealand two years later.
Yerex stayed in the army after the war as a staff officer and instructor, with the rank of lieutenant. He married Mary Kingdon at Lower Hutt on 8 February 1921; they were to have two daughters and a son. In 1922 government economies resulted in his retrenchment and he returned to civilian life as a reserve officer.
After working as a land agent in Auckland, he obtained employment as the first stipendiary ranger for the Auckland Acclimatisation Society in 1926. The following year he joined the Department of Internal Affairs as fisheries ranger at Taupo. In 1930 the department became responsible for the destruction of deer on a national scale, and Yerex, who had already surveyed the spread and impact of deer, was appointed to direct the operations. Although now a civilian, he retained his military mien and title, and indeed ran the deer destruction operations like a military campaign.
In the early years the short, sturdy Yerex, based at Wellington, organised and directed the whole project single-handedly. He set stringent conditions of employment and demanded high standards of his deer-cullers, as they were always known. They were paid a retainer plus a bonus for animals killed, and had to skin them and bring out the hides. He was a natural leader with the ability to recruit and retain good men. The cullers in turn held him in high regard, referring to him as ‘The Skipper’.
In 1940 Yerex returned to the army and was attached to the General Staff Branch in Wellington; for a short time he was adjutant at Waiouru Military Camp. After a brief tour of duty as a staff officer in the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia, in 1943 he was appointed chief instructor of the forest and jungle warfare wing at the army school of instruction, Trentham, where five of his former Internal Affairs field officers joined him as instructors. Yerex used his trainees as a deer control force in the Tararua Range, even insisting on their recovering skins. In March 1945 he was posted to the retired list with the rank of major.
‘Major’ Yerex resumed his job directing government operations to destroy deer, as well as chamois, thar and wild goats; now there were also possums to cope with. Internal Affairs had responsibility for the administration of game birds and fish, and also for protected native birds. Yerex brought together all these roles into a Wildlife Branch (later Division) within the department, and was controller of wildlife from 1945 until September 1956, when he retired because of failing health. Earlier that year the animal control functions of the Wildlife Division had been transferred to the New Zealand Forest Service. Yerex died at Te Awamutu on 17 January 1967, survived by his wife and children.
The jovial, forthright Yerex is best remembered for his direction of deer destruction operations. It is clear now that his military-style methods were generally deficient. With never more than 120 deer-cullers at any one time (supervised by up to 50 field officers), hunting was not nearly intensive enough to bring the animals to sufficiently low numbers overall, and there was too little understanding of the animals themselves. Deer were brought to reasonably low numbers in the open country where they had competed with domestic stock, but the operations were ineffective everywhere else. However, Yerex and his deer-cullers – immortalised by one of their number, Barry Crump, as ‘Good Keen Men’ – were a hardy, independent cadre of skilled hunters and bushmen, who made a distinctive contribution to New Zealand culture and folklore.